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Published on February 20th, 2013 | by Philip Bates

Introducing: Vengeance on Varos

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re looking back at some of the pivotal tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, running up to November – and An Unearthly Child

Welcome to Varos. There’s plenty of the rare mineral, Zeiton-7 (at the right price); there’s food rationing; a distrustful atmosphere where your own partner could land you in a whole heap of trouble; torture and death as entertainment; and Jason Connery.

Welcome to Varos. Forgive me if I don’t join you.

“When did they last show something worth watching…?”

Varos 1

Producer and script editor team, John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward, were looking for something different. Some of the bravest episodes of Doctor Who have also been some of the best: just look at The Ark in Space, The Time Meddler and Snakedance (or more recently, Midnight, The Empty Child/ The Doctor Dances and Vincent and the Doctor). So when Saward was approached by writer, Philip Martin, with a script riffing off ‘video nasties,’ it seemed perfect. Its dark and gritty tone certainly clashes with the Sixth Doctor’s tastelessly-colourful jacket, anyway!

‘Video nasties,’ generally low-budget films distributed on video tapes to avoid censorship, were causing much debate – particularly from Mary Whitehouse, who had previously attacked Doctor Who for its violence in tales like The Seeds of Doom and The Deadly Assassin. Martin’s script coupled this idea with the rising trend of reality shows; something which had begun as early as the 1940s (though, on the whole, unrecognisable from today’s crop of ‘reality’), but was still finding its feet in the early 1980s. In fact, the first ‘reality’ show had just concluded in America prior to the broadcast of Vengeance on Varos, and Real People – a show about people with weird occupations and hobbies, which debuted in 1979 – spawned a few imitators.

Most notable of these was That’s Incredible!, which ran from 1980 to 1984, and showcased a dangerous array of stunts. Some of these acts were so risky, the show coined the phrase ‘Do Not Try This Yourself,’ which has, of course, developed into ‘Do Not Try This At Home,’ particularly used in the 1990s. It’s Incredible! was even voted the ‘most sadistic’ show on television by Time Magazine.

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Vengeance on Varos is perhaps more topical today than it was upon its initial broadcast in 1985, with reality television now commonplace. In fact, it even rivals Doctor Who in the ratings war, as millions tune in to watch the tuneless on The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.

A story about torture might not seem a good fit for a show originally commissioned as ‘for children,’ but as Eric Saward explains in the documentary, Nice or Nasty?:

It was just following in the long line where I think it has always been made as an adult’s programme.

In a season bookended by the decidedly violent and grim Attack of the Cybermen and Revelation of the Daleks, Vengeance on Varos suits perfectly!

State of the Media

Philip Martin was held in high-regard in the industry, but he’d never really considered writing for Doctor Who before. Then an idea about a dystopian world where torture was entertainment and the public lived in fear popped into his head.

Etta and Arak

He was filming his 1970s TV series, Gangsters in Pakistan (Martin himself appeared in a number of roles over its two seasons), just after a revolution had taken place. In 1977, a military coup had overthrown Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country’s ninth Prime Minister, fourth President and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (since voted into power five times). General Zia-ul-Haq, chief of the army, promised general elections within three months of the takeover… but things turned decidedly nasty. Martin notes:

Always, in any of these revolutions, they always go to control the media.

General Zia imposed martial law, and, despite being widely disputed, charged Bhutto with the murder of a fellow politician and lawyer, Sahibzada Ahmed Raza Khan Qasuri.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in April 1979.

General Zia, meanwhile, acted as Pakistan’s sixth President until his death in 1988, and was a very controversial figure. Though he eventually lifted martial law in the year Vengeance on Varos was broadcast (and a new Prime Minister was elected), there was a large amount of smoke-and-mirrors, as he obtained even greater power by enforcing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, thereby changing the politics of the country to a semi-presidential system.

On the other hand, Zia ushered in economic prosperity for the country, and prevented a potential soviet attack.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

(And if the name, Bhutto, is familiar, it is because Zulfikar Ali’s daughter, Benazir, became Pakistan’s eleventh Prime Minister in the late 1980s and 1990s.)

It’s easy to see how the idea of a state-controlled media and oppressed peoples filtered into Varos’ voting system and political system, where even the Governor isn’t in control.

Deaf with Pleasure

Vengeance, too, is a bit of a double-edged sword.

Despite its negativity, many consider it as one of Colin Baker’s best stories as the Doctor, and around 7 million people tuned in. It remains one of the finest examples of Doctor Who from that era, and has much to say about politics and human nature. It stars a fine cast, including Who-regular, Martin Jarvis, Jason Connery (son of Sean, the very first James Bond, of course!) and Sheila Reid, now best-known for appearing in Benidorm.

Then there’s Sil.

Wonderfully played by Nabil Shaban, the slug-like creatures was created merely to fill the role of ‘monster of the week,’ but was so successful, he returned in a four-part segment in Trial of a Time Lord (1986), titled Mindwarp. A similar monster was also introduced in the latter tale, Kiv, a fellow Mentor, played by Christopher Ryan (now a familiar face as various Sontarans).

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Sil is perhaps one of the most memorable creations in Doctor Who, partly due to Philip Martin’s witty and layered script, but certainly because Shaban is delightfully vile and sly. His translation circuits are faulty, so he slurs words and mispronounces. His vain arrogance is startlingly ironic, as is his dismissal of humanoids (particularly Peri) as ‘ugly.’ Oh, and his laugh is one of the creepiest things you’ll hear.

Sil was to return once again in Mission to Magnus, but this promised third appearance never materialised as Doctor Who was forced into a hiatus. Why? Because it was too violent.

There are arguments as to what was at the top of the evidence list, but definitely battling for place are Revelation of the Daleks, Vengeance on Varos and Attack of the Cybermen. Martin maintains that the latter was the prime example, but the unrelentingly grim tone of Vengeance can’t be underestimated.

There is, of course, the massively controversial scene that caused almost as much a stir as the conclusion of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012)! Yes, it’s the acid bath scene, in which many think the Doctor pushes two guards to their doom. What actually happens is that one falls in by accident, then drags the other in behind him. But the Doctor’s almost-gleeful remark – “forgive me if I don’t join you” – sticks in the back of the throat.

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Violence, however, is laced throughout Doctor Who – just look at the Doctor attempting to bash someone’s head in with a rock in An Unearthly Child – and the themes of Vengeance on Varos reverberate in both the minds of viewers… and in the show itself! Bad Wolf/ The Parting of the Ways (2005) particularly shares its viewpoint, and its tone is similar to 2011’s The Rebel Flesh/ The Almost People.

Doctor Who has always upturned expectations and freed the citizens of the universe – but rarely does the Doctor come across such an ingenious and gritty problem as he does on the former prison planet, rich in Zeiton-7: Varos.

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About the Author

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When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything.



7 Responses to Introducing: Vengeance on Varos

  1. Pingback: 100th Post: Reflecting on Nearly 3 Years | Philip Bates, Freelance Writer

  2. avatar Bradondo says:

    Another great analysis of a classic story! Vengeance may be my favorite Colin Baker tale–I love it when Who gets its hands dirty and enters darker territory. I have a couple of thoughts about the whole “violence is Doctor Who” debate which haunted the series throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Firstly the debate was something forced on the programme by some pretty misguided thinking, i.e. that Who was primarily for children (it really wasn’t), that children who do watch can’t tell right from wrong or fantasy from reality (they can) and that violence in the media in general triggers violence in real life (it’s the exact opposite, actually–art reflects both the society in which it is created and the primal urges we all share). People who looked at this story in particular and thought it was somehow gratuitously violent were completely missing the point–V.O.V. was showing the consequences of a world where real violence was used as a tool to control the masses. The irony is that censorship does precisely the same thing, but inverts the means: instead of using violence as a threat the overly censorous demonize violence in art to control our exposure to new and “dangerous” ideas. It’s all about control. In a way the producers of Doctor Who should have been laughing in their sleeves as the whole debate completely legitemized every point they were making!

    • avatar Philip Bates says:

      Thanks very much. :) Glad you enjoyed it.

      You’re completely right. Doctor Who isn’t just for kids, and even if it is – so what?! I think we patronise children too much. As you say, they know right from wrong. They probably understand better than most adults!

      Have you ever read Fahrenheit 451? I think you’d like it… :)

      • avatar Bradondo says:

        Of course! When I was in school Farenheit 451 was required reading. As a writer myself (and as someone whose tastes run well outside the mainstream) I’ve always been simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the whole concept of censorship of the arts. Look at Ken Russell’s brilliant film “The Devils” for example–there was nothing in that film that did not actually happen in reality, yet it was attacked as anti-religious smut, forcibly cut to an unrecognizeable mess and buried by Warner Brothers for almost 40 years. You still can’t get an official copy of the original cut, although the BFI did finally release the UK theatrical version last year. What exactly are the censors trying to do here? Do they believe we, as independent adults need to be protected from different or unpleasant thoughts and images? My feeling has always been that it should be up to the individual (or for a child the parent/guardian) to decide what he or she can handle. Censorship is the beginning of a social nanny state, where everything we see, hear, read and (eventually) think must firat pass through an arbitrary filter of taste and decency which often strips the art of it’s power and meaning. It’s no coincidence that every opressive society throughout history has maintained a tight control over arts and culture.

        • avatar Philip Bates says:

          Required reading? And so it should be! Sadly, it’s not any more. I thankfully stumbled upon 451 for just £3, and thought, ‘hey, why not?’

          And I’ve picked up every Bradbury book I’ve seen since!

          Your thoughts echo mine exactly. It’s nice to see that someone else agrees with me! Censorship is a massive concern, as you say particularly for writers. I think censorship is more of an issue now than in the days of Vengeance on Varos – perhaps as serious an issue as it ever has been – but they say things are cyclical, so maybe it will revert soon. Censorship and political correctness are the two things I’m most nervous about in my career. One wrong move isn’t worth thinking about!

          Mind you, it’s great to mine the notion of censorship for stories!

          Never heard of The Devils, but I’ll certainly take a look! Thanks.

          • avatar Bradondo says:

            The Devils isn’t for the faint of heart–even the BFI certificate X version is quite shocking, even though it lacks the most notorious scene (dubbed “the rape of Christ”). I’m assuming the BFI DVD is the version you’re most likely to have access to. The picture quality is superb and it’s in the correct aspect ratio, which are plusses as it’s a stunningly designed and photographed film, but the bootleg “director’s cut” is a slightly superior cut of the film. The BFI cut is still a masterpiece, but the extra 11 minutes or so add just an extra bit of punch to what is already one of the most powerful and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. If you track it down let me know what you think of it! :) I’m assuming you have access to my email address, so feel free to write me there.
            Brad

  3. avatar iank says:

    It’s a myth, though, that violence had anything to do with the hiatus. It was taken off to save money along with a whole heap of other shows like Juliet Bravo, Crackerjack etc. The violence argument was dreamed up after the fact by Grade and company after JNT so successfully whipped the media up against them.
    Gits.

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